The Central Intelligence Agency misled journalists from top U.S. news organizations such as the New York Times, NBC News and the author of the book “The CIA at War” to convince the public its brutal interrogation tactics were working, according to a Senate investigation released Tuesday.
The agency picked journalists and authors to work with and selectively provided information attributed to anonymous sources described as “top American intelligence officials” and “senior U.S. intelligence analysts” to sell the CIA's story -- namely, that the interrogations were yielding valuable information and to take credit for arrests made by the FBI.
The descriptions of interactions between CIA personnel and journalists provide a window into how reports about classified activities are sourced, often sanctioned by government officials at the highest level, who are then allowed to hide behind vague attributions. The CIA also did not investigate illegal leaks of classified information but was actively disseminating the same information to convey its message that the interrogations were working and that the agency deserved more credit for the arrests.
Philip Mudd, deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, argued in an email to other CIA officials that the misinformation campaign was essential:
we either got out and sell, or we get hammered, which has implications beyond media. congress reads it, cuts our authorities, messes up our budget. we need to make sure the impression of what we do is positive … we must be more aggressive out there. we either put out our story or we get eaten. there is no middle ground.
CIA attorneys warned officials that the agency should not allow any of the information be attributed to the agency but rather to an “official knowledgeable” about the program.
The report claims that both Ronald Kessler’s “The CIA at War” and two New York Times reports written by Douglas Jehl included “inaccurate claims” proffered by CIA officials speaking on background. Kessler reported that the FBI’s arrest of two other suspects was based on information from the interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Jehl, now foreign editor of the Washington Post, reported that the secret interrogation program “disrupted terrorist operations” and “saved lives.”
“Both the Kessler book and the Jehl article included inaccurate claims about the effectiveness of CIA interrogations, much of it consistent with the inaccurate information being provided by the CIA to policymakers at the time,” the report said.
Reached by International Business Times, both Kessler and Jehl said they were never contacted by the Senate Committee to get their side of the story. Kessler said the information he got from the CIA was corroborated by sources at the FBI.
"The whole thing is ridiculous," he said, referring to the report. "Of course I solicited the CIA's cooperation. This was just standard reporting. Of course they wanted to tell their side, but I was the one who solicited them."
Moreover, he said, former CIA director Leon Panetta, an Obama administration appointee, argued that "enhanced interrogation" did provide information that helped lead to Osama bin Laden.
In an email, Jehl said he would never comment on confidential conversations with government officials but that he stands by his reporting:
As a national security reporter for the Times in 2005, I worked aggressively to pursue and publish stories about the CIA’s harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects, at a time when those details remained highly classified. I am proud of the work that my Times colleagues and I did in bringing these CIA practices to light.
The CIA wanted to both disseminate the idea that interrogations were working but also discredit claims by other agencies such as the FBI. The CIA’s director of public affairs, Mark Mansfield, described a proposed story by the New York Times’ David Johnston as ‘“bulls---” and biased toward the FBI and added ‘we need to push back.’”
The CIA collaborated with Kessler on a second book that was also deemed too congratulatory of the FBI but after meeting with Mansfield, added the following to his account: "[T]he CIA could point to a string of successes and dozens of plots that were rolled up because of coercive interrogation techniques."
The report cites “erroneous” reporting by NBC’s “Dateline” that cited senior U.S. officials saying that al Qaeda leaders “bundled off” to secret interrogation centers became founts of actionable information and were key to the captures of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Khallad bin Attash. “These information is inaccurate,” the report said.